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Coronavirus and pets: animal shelters prepare for when people can’t afford their cats and dogs | COMMENTARY

BARCS took in this dog after he was discovered on the sorting floor at Wheelabrator, Baltimore's waste-to-energy facility. The animal shelter is preparing for an influx of animals when people suffer income losses because of coronavirus.
BARCS took in this dog after he was discovered on the sorting floor at Wheelabrator, Baltimore's waste-to-energy facility. The animal shelter is preparing for an influx of animals when people suffer income losses because of coronavirus. (courtesy of BARCS/courtesy of BARCS)

We are only beginning to bear witness to the devastating effects of COVID-19, which is wreaking havoc on the lives of people here and across the globe. Although our focus must remain on human health, animals will also fall victim to the pandemic, as shelters are likely to face a catastrophic number of surrenders in the coming weeks due to loss of income and other hardship.

Fortunately, there are simple and inexpensive steps that we can take now to avert the euthanasia of healthy animals due to lack of space.

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Our city is home to the Baltimore Animal Rescue and Care Shelter, or BARCS, the largest animal shelter in Maryland, which admits over 12,000 animals each year. Unlike private shelters that pick and choose the animals in their care, BARCS is an “open-admission” shelter and cannot turn animals away. In addition to accepting animals from the public, it also works with Baltimore Animal Control to care for the city’s many abandoned, neglected and abused animals, who often need critical veterinary care.

Despite a contract with the city, BARCS is a separate non-profit that assumed operations of our former municipal shelter in 2005 and succeeded in increasing the city’s appalling 2% live release rate to 90%, the benchmark for “no-kill” shelters. BARCS is one of the greatest success stories of Baltimore City and a model for shelters nationwide.

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Without immediate support from the public, this trajectory of life-saving work may come to a screeching halt. Within the past month, BARCS has had to cancel or postpone three major fundraising events that raise critically needed operating funds. Compounding these challenges, BARCS is scheduled to relocate and must move all animals in its care to a new facility in Cherry Hill in mid-April.

The impending move had already required BARCS to increase staffing, yet now the shelter must operate on a reduced staff for the safety of its employees and the public. With an estimated 355,000 pets in Baltimore, the shelter’s greatest fear, however, will undoubtedly be the onslaught of animal surrenders from the public, as unemployment rates may soar to 20% by some estimates, and the earnings of countless others will be slashed.

The lives of thousands of Baltimoreans will be upended by this pandemic and many will be compelled to surrender their dogs and cats. This influx of animals will be devastating for open-admission shelters such as BARCS, and we must act now to stem the tide of surrenders. Moreover, the pandemic is descending upon shelters during their months of peak intake — spring and summer.

With our mild winter, “kitten season” has already commenced and shelters such as BARCS have started caring for litters of kittens, some who were born on the street. Tragically, the pandemic has forced shelters such as BARCS to suspend their trap neuter return programs, which are effective for reducing the population of homeless cats.

Each and every person who cares about animals can help. While financial donations are urgently needed, non-monetary assistance is equally important. There is no better time to foster or adopt an animal, particularly when many are working from home. Those who are unable to donate, foster or adopt can still assist other pet owners who are on the brink of losing their animals by donating food and supplies.

Shelters such as BARCS maintain food pantries for the public, as well as “wish lists” on their website, and accept unopened food, cat litter and supplies. People who work and volunteer for animal organizations see the worst and best of humanity. The current crisis reminds us that we are not only connected to each other, but to every living being.

Most of us feel overwhelmed and powerless by this pandemic, but we can each take steps to preserve the human-animal bond at a time when we need it most. It is within our power to save the lives of countless animals in Baltimore and we must act now before it is too late.

Caroline A. Griffin (cag@carolineagriffin.com) is Baltimore chair of the Maryland Spay Neuter Advisory Board and former chair of the Mayor’s Anti-Animal Abuse Advisory Commission.

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